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Hope, but Still No Guardian Angel for Black Dramas

January 30, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Black sitcoms we got. But what television never examines or celebrates during February, Black History Month, is the integration of black dramatic series into prime time. What integration?

Much worse than being shoved to the back of the bus, they're rarely allowed on it, white programmers having concluded that there's no fiscal future in a weekly hour revolving around African Americans. Just as, before that miraculously huge CBS hit "Touched by an Angel," networks were certain--no question about it--that there was no promise in a sentimental series about God.

Being touched by this new wisdom about the profitability of angels on Sunday nights hasn't made TV programmers any more daring, however. And when it comes to the prevailing negativity about a weekly black drama, go figure. Especially since there are so many stories to tell about African Americans that are compelling either because they are universal or uniquely black.

One is "Blind Faith," the brawny movie that kicks off Showtime's bow to Black History Month on Sunday. It's at once seething and heartbreaking, a first-rate mystery and a sociological tome raked by racial volatility. Its flashback to the Bronx of 1959 yields searing performances by Courtney B. Vance and Charles S. Dutton as brothers in a tale of family love and dysfunction set in a hotbed of bigotry.

Written by Frank Military and directed by Ernest Dickerson, "Blind Faith" finds lawyer John Williams (Vance) defending his gentle young nephew, Charlie Jr. (Garland White), who has mysteriously confessed to murdering a white youth in a park. What is he covering up, and who savagely beat him?

John's brother and Charlie Jr.'s father, Charles (Dutton), is a rigid, surly, militaristic street cop whose driving ambition to become the first black sergeant in the Bronx takes a toll on his family. He is equally hard on Charlie and his jazz-musician younger brother (Kadeem Hardison), and only marginally less so on his wife (Lonette McKee).

With this as background, dangerous racial winds swirl as John suspects a conspiracy while engaging in a seemingly hopeless struggle to win over an all-white male jury.

Vance and Dutton are sizzling in this raw, uncompromising story that, in surprising ways, at once angrily epitomizes and moves beyond black versus white.

On Feb. 9, meanwhile, Showtime launches its sixth annual showcase for black filmmakers. Six short films will be shown over five nights, the best of these being Debbi Reynolds' "Letter to My Mother," with fine work by Merrin Dungey and Yvonne Farrow in a deeply emotional story about a young screenwriter's tortured link to her mentally disturbed mother. Often strong, too, is "Carmin's Choice," Monice Mitchell's film about an ex-con, well played by Carol Hall, struggling to create a better life for her younger sister.

Also interesting are Deborah Pratt's worthy "Girlfriends" and Nat Colley's provocative "The Abortion of Mary Williams."

In addition to being the year's first ratings sweeps month, February is traditionally a TV ghetto for programs with black themes. Among the many, in addition to Showtime's group, are "Small Steps Big Strides," a so-so AMC documentary on Feb. 10 that dips into 20th Century Fox archives to chronicle the black experience in Hollywood from 1903 to 1970, and Sunday's "The Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History," the History Channel's chillingly informative documentary about the notorious Invisible Empire that Julian Bond here labels "the nation's oldest terrorist organization."

A collaboration by Termite Art Productions and Bill Brummel Productions, the Klan film is especially strong when chronicling the hooded group as it rises from the ashes of the Civil War en route to infamy, beginning as a benign social fraternity before evolving into an anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic culture of thugs and murderers whose influence peaked in the 1920s, when its membership numbered in the millions.

No secrets are disclosed by a "A Secret History." As with the Jewish Holocaust, however, this is history that bears repeating again and again, if only to remind us of humanity's capacity for evil and how some of these perpetrators have deceptively redefined themselves in the shadow of a new millennium.

"A Secret History" and "Small Steps Big Strides" are connected in that both give prominence to "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's famous 1915 film that demonized black men and romanticized the Klan and which many regard as flawless filmmaking for its time, even though its grasp of history was not.

Kevin Burns is executive producer and Louis Gossett Jr. the narrator of "Small Steps Big Strides," which is arresting as a clip show but thin on interpretation while cataloging the early stunting and stereotyping of blacks in Hollywood films.

Such actors as Stepin Fetchit, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Paul Robeson, the Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Ethel Waters and Harry Belafonte surface here. And the range of experience runs from mammies, happy-go-lucky slaves and comic stereotypes to James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander reportedly being moviedom's first interracial couple to share a bed in "The Great White Hope."

That was 1970, the virtual cut-off for this documentary, which gives the ensuing years only a couple of minutes of overview that, purposely or not, leaves the over-rosy impression that Hollywood of the '70s, '80s and '90s has been colorblind. Hardly.

* "Blind Faith" shows at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.

* "The Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History" shows at 6 and 10 p.m. Sunday on the History Channel.

* "Black Filmmakers' Showcase" begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 9 on Showtime.

* "Small Steps Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood" shows at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 on AMC.

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